The Musical Evolution of Michael Kiwanuka

An exploration of Michael Kiwanuka’s albums, and the growth found through his subsequent releases, culminating with his latest masterpiece, Kiwanuka… 

by: Miki Hellerbach

Michael Kiwanuka first entered into my musical consciousness through a means of sonic nostalgia. When I first heard his work, it connected to a lot of my former musical sensibilities, yet made me feel as if I was listening to something new, a pleasing blend created through reincarnation. Kiwanuka’s first full length album Home Again was released in 2012 and I revisit it often to this day. The album possesses songs that sound classic, as if crafted by an early 70’s rock n’ roll singer-songwriter. From beginning to end Home Again is as easy listening as it is head-nod inducing. The song that hooked me most emphatically was the powerful ballad “Worry Walks Beside Me,” a song that exists as a classic blues ballad bolstered by deep guitar strokes and strained yet smooth emotion-filled vocals. Surprisingly, the lyrics describe a quaint yet poignant overview of modern anxiety, heightening the idea that although many of Kiwanuka’s soundscapes seemed to hail from days of yore, his music and headspace is very much steeped in the modern world. 

Kiwanuka released his second album Love & Hate in 2016, an album that generated a great deal of buzz and garnered an abundance of critical acclaim. Shifting his sound some in this follow up album, Kiwanuka enlisted the acclaimed producer Danger Mouse and the sound they birthed beamed with 1970’s soul. Love & Hate is much more conceptual rather than a collection of songs linked together by a vibe and energy. Danger Mouse consciously added dynamic transitioning within songs, as well as use of piano and a string section as exhibited by the opening track “Cold Little Heart” (which became the theme to the show Big Little Lies). “Cold Little Heart” is a powerhouse filled with synth, strings, emotion, and a gospel choral underlying everything. Kiwanuka then transitions into the soul clapped and political “Black Man In A White World,” where he channels Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack, directly stating the emotional effects of the facts of his existence. Love & Hate analyzes the thin line, and war, between these two contrasting ideas and relates this battle to his own personal relationships. He explores the idea that the strength of Love itself can be so overwhelming that it can transfer into Hate easily with one wrong move. On the song “Falling” he describes a repeated descent into a love he knows is dangerous and could directly lead to hurt. On the title track “Love and Hate,” Kiwanuka battles with a woman who loves holding onto his mistakes rather than wanting to move forward. He then further explores how he battles the two ideas internally. Finally, in the closing song “The Final Frame,” Kiwanuka lyrically expresses that the tension of the two emotions has caused numbness within his relationship. These ideas and emotions show Kiwanuka’s growth in his mental and musical expression and they carry over into his music to this day.

Michael Kiwanuka recently released what I view as his opus, the self titled Kiwanuka. Building upon all that came prior, Kiwanuka manifests itself as a reflective piece of art that perfectly blends early 70’s singer-songwriter rock, late 70’s soul, and contemporary British pop R&B. This album is just as conceptual Love & Hate, yet seems more sparse like his first. In Kiwanuka, Michael balances his lyricism between his own inward existence and thoughts on his outward relationships. He also speaks to a general “you” in an advice like tone that is not forceful but simply expressed. He opens with the wildly captivating “You Ain’t The Problem” in which he perfectly blends an opening of hand drums and sounds of 70’s street soul. He then connects them easily with roaring psychedelic sounding guitar and background vocals with a repeated “lalala.” Kiwanuka then builds an unexpected rhythmic vocal pattern preaching self love and self forgiveness, which seamlessly moves into a repeated mantra, “Don’t hesitate. Time heals the pain. You ain’t the problem.” It is as if Kiwanuka is combining all he has gained is his musical exploration simultaneously whilst experimenting with rhythm in a new way. In the song “Living In Denial” he opens with a soul rock repeated “lalalala” similar yet even more catchy than the opening track as he explores the idea of speaking with purpose and truth, “It’s not enough just to cause a reaction. Who you tryna’ please? Know applause come before satisfaction. Say what you mean.” Kiwanuka wants us all to further our conversations with a purpose separate from getting a rise or reaction. He believes in expression with growth, whether that be between two people who care for each other, or through the social media sphere. 

On Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka employs the use of an introductory interlude on two occasions to preface a song. These two songs happen to be my favorites on the album. The method to which they are placed and used really completes the project. “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” has a wildly spiritual intro composed of healing chords, smooth vocals, and entrancing background “ooo’s and ahhh’s.” It then seamlessly transitions into the song itself which starts with a simple kick-drum and numbing yet empowering piano chords. His expression is simple— Kiwanuka is asking his lover to take him fully even through his faults and angst through the lyrics, “Could you stay with me? Don’t let me go. Sadness and fury is all I know.” The song is written to be a pop, love ballad, yet when delivered with Kiwanuka’s 70’s soul influence the song proves to be even more poignant and specific. The song “Hero” from the very intro grabs you fully. Kiwanuka simply asks, “Am  I a hero now? To  die a hero, is all that we know now?” He has seen death before, with people memorialized, and Kiwanuka wonders if he can be a hero within his lifetime. He examines his own value and mortality while challenging the societal mindset. “Hero’s” intro starts with a somber piano background that then transitions into the actual song, which is a guitar filled quick paced anthem in the way of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” The tonal difference from the intro to the full song shows that lyrics can be contemplative and discouraging as well as commanding and hopeful. These two songs and their intros show the levels of Kiwanuka’s growth as an artist and orchestrator. They connect all of the tones of the album while showing multiple perspectives on similar ideas, as well as confirm the album to be a true composition.

Michael Kiwanuka exists in a space all on his own within the world of modern music. He represents nostalgia and his art harkens back to greats before him such as Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin — and in his sound he carries their spirit. At this point in Kiwanuka’s career, Kiwanuka’s most impressive quality is his continued musical growth and his ability to identify and combine all his strengths he has learned over time into one full body of work. Kiwanuka, one of the best albums of the year, might not sound anything like the scope of modern music, yet it feels like it fits exactly.

 

Miki Hellerbach is a Baltimore raised, Brooklyn based independent journalist. He is also an independent alternative r&b artist under the name Miki Montebello and as a part of his group PM. His writing focus is Music’s intersection with Culture, Politics, and Personal Discovery. Read more from Miki here.

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